Project Moon Base

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ 

(3/10) In a nutshell: This rather inventive and surprisingly scientifically ambitious film was a TV pilot halfway through filming. Unfortunately the TV budget shows. A Communist saboteur infiltrates a 1970 reccie flight for the first American moon base, and the two pilots are more interested in settling the fifties war of the sexes than actually doing their jobs. A thin and silly script with a mixed but ultimately stuffy gender message. Crude but fun special effects save the film.

Project Moon Base (1953). Directed by Richard Talmadge. Written by Robert A. Heinlein and Jack Seaman. Starring: Donna Martell, Ross Ford, Hayden Rorke, Larry Johns, Herb Jacobs. Produced by Jack Seaman for Galaxy Pictures. IMDb score: 2.8

Modelwork by Jacques Fresco on Project Moon Base.

Modelwork by Jacques Fresco on Project Moon Base.

I have just finished my review of Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), in which I bemoaned the turgid sexism of that particular fifties turkey, only to be thrown into a film that is, if possible, even worse in that department, although it tackles it from a slightly different perspective.

Poster.

Poster.

As I pointed out in my previous review, the fifties was a difficult decade for American men. When returning from WWII, they found that a whole bunch of women had been doing the jobs they left behind, and more worrying still, the country actually hadn’t collapsed because of it. This had given the females of the nation the laughable notion that they were just as good at doing manly things as the manly men they were substituting for. In fact, some of them even got the silly idea that they may be better at some things, so good, in fact, that they might see themselves as future bosses or politicians. Furthermore, there were those who suggested that if women were capable of doing manly things like tightening bolts with a wrench, then perhaps men would also be capable of doing womanly things like the dishes or taking care of the toddler. There were even ”feminists” arguing that the natural order of things, like the man being the indisputable head of the household, might not necessarily be the whole truth. Indeed, this was a scary time to be a man in America.

It got even worse as medical science and psychology were breaking down the widely held truth about the woman being ”the weaker sex”, and both practice and theory failed to provide any good arguments for the males’ point of view. Fortunately men still had the numbers on their side when it came to leading positions in the media, the entertainment world, politics, advertisement and economy, and scrambling to find a usable weapon against this onslaught of women’s liberation, authors, filmmakers and public figures reached for a last straw: satire. Thus the popularity of books and films depicting a future where women held positions of power and influence, and made a real mess out of it, skyrocketed. But more on this later. Let’s get to the film at hand.

A colourised publicity shot for the movie.

A colourised publicity shot for the movie.

The movie starts out as a fairly staple fifties space film – in fact it starts with an expositional crawl, explaining that in 1966 (the film was made in 1953) American colonel Briteis had made the first ”manned” orbit of the moon. The film is set in 1970, when geopolitical unrest has necessitated building an American station on the moon to preserve world peace (a notion also stated in the movie’s big-budget inspiration Destination Moon [1950, review]). But as moon landings are fickle undertakings, the Americans first completed the much easier task of building a huge space station, from which a lunar lander could be launched. As a preparation for the first lunar mission, the US military is preparing Operation Magellan, in which a lunar module will be launched from the space station with two pilots and a scientist on-board, and orbit the moon to take pictures of the “dark side of the moon”. But alas, the ”enemies of freedom” (who may or may not be those pesky Communists) are desperately trying to sabotage this Umurrican mission.

Hayden Rorke.

Hayden Rorke.

General ”Pappy” Greene (Hayden Roarke) is the mastermind behind the mission, supposed to be led by Major Bill Moore (Ross Ford). But at the last minute orders come from the president that Moore is to be made co-pilot and the mission will be led by the space hero Colonel Brities – who is – GASP – a woman! Moore, who used to have a crush on young Briteis (Donna Martell) is bitter and pissed for being upstaged by Briteis for ”political reasons”, and almost refuses to go on the mission. Briteis – whose name is pronounced Bright-Eyes by all men in an attempt to belittle her – actually turns out to behave like a spoiled 15-year old brat, as she is also reluctant to take on the mission with Moore, because ”he hates me!” And she is rightly called a spoiled brat by Gen. Pappy Greene, who reminds her that the only reason she got the first round-the-moon mission was because she was the smallest and lightest of all the pilots, not because of her skills as a pilot, and threatens to ”put her on his knee and give her a good spanking”. I’m not kidding.

Ross Ford as Maj. Moore and Donna Martell as Col. Briteis.

Ross Ford as Maj. Moore and Donna Martell as Col. Briteis.

Meanwhile, the ”enemies of freedom” (not necessarily the Communists), led by the sinister Mr. Roundtree (Herb Jacobs), are revealed to have such a vast network that they have identical doubles for the top 300 scientists in America, and their spies manage to find out that a certain Doctor Wernher (no relation to sinister Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, I suppose) is the one who will accompany the scientists and take photographs of the moon. They produce their double and ”take care” of the real Wernher.

Larry Johns as "Wernher".

Larry Johns as “Wernher”.

The three take off for the space station, where they dock and don magnetic boots to counter-act the weightlessness, and have a chat with a man walking on the ceiling, and take their seats on the wall of an office where they have some exposition chat with a bunch of people sitting diagonally 90 degrees above them. They then hop into a lunar module, and the two top pilots of the US army bicker like 12-year-olds, while the maybe but maybe not Communist spy probably feels that the threat from the Capitalist Satan feels a bit overrated.

However, it seems that although the possibly but not identified as such Communist masterminds whose vast network covers body doubles for all America’s top people might not be too capable either. Despite finding a perfect match for Dr. Wernher, no-one thought of actually briefing him on the real doctor’s expertise (cameras and photography), nor his background (he’s supposed to be from Brooklyn but has never heard of the Brooklyn Dodgers). This does make Major Moore a bit suspicous. The ideological battle of ineptitude continues as Moore raises these concerns with Conolel Briteis, without remembering that although ”Wernher” can’t see them from the hatch below, a lunar module is a rather small place, so he has no problem hearing them. A fistfight between ”Wernher” and Moore ensues, as Briteis, being a woman and all, stands back and watches. The wresting partners accidentally hit a rather unprotected switch, sending the module off course, before Briteis manages to straighten it out. Moore subdues ”Wernher” and ties his hands with what looks like gauze.

Donna Martell and Ross Fors strapped in for take-off.

Donna Martell and Ross Fors strapped in for take-off.

But my oh my, the rocket now doesn’t have enough fuel to make the full lap around the moon, and Briteis states that the only option is to land. Said and done, but she leaves the landing to Major Moore, as she is a woman and all, and probably not fit to make a moon landing. Besides, all this commotion has made her ”go all female”, for which she profoundly apologises.

***SPOILER AHEAD***

***

We get a rather pointless exercise of a long walk on the moon to set up a radio transmitter, designed to pad out time and have ”Wernher” killed in a fall, making Moore and Briteis Adam and Eve on the moon. Contact is made with Pappy, who is astounded that the two have actually landed on the moon, but for some reason or other the US military have no way of making a rescue flight. Instead they will be sent supplies by drones, and by order or the president will set up the first moon base. However, there’s a problem. Public opinion might be queasy about the fact that an unmarried man and an unmarried woman are living together in such close quarters, and thus the president has asked the two to get married. After some resistance, again rather pointless and probably to pad out the running time, they agree. But Colonel Briteis has a condition: as a wedding gift Moore is to be promoted to Brigadier General, so that he outranks her, and can thus assume the natural position of the head of the family. Ah, what a happy ending. No but wait: there is another plot twist! The president wishes to congratulate them with a video call – and it turns out the president is – GASP – a woman! The couple almost kiss before they are blocked out by The End credits.

***

***END OF SPOILER***

Colourised still of Hayden Rorke, Ross Ford and Donna Martell.

Colourised still of Hayden Rorke, Ross Ford and Donna Martell.

First of all let’s point out that there is some confusion about what the name of the movie is. The opening credits have it as Project Moon Base, but all the posters and promotional material have the title Project Moonbase. IMDb lists it with three words, so that’s the one I’m settling for. But if you need proof on whether a film is a low-budget production, the fact that the PR people and the filmmakers can’t agree on the name of the film is a fairly strong indication.

Robert A. Heinlein ans his wife on set.

Robert A. Heinlein and his wife on the set of Destination Moon.

The movie, believe it or not, was the brainchild of celebrated sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein had been on hand working on the script for George Pal’s Technicolor movie Destination Moon, the film that ushered in science fiction films into the mainstream in 1950. In fact, Project Moon Base is sometimes talked about as an unofficial sequel to Destination Moon, even if that makes little sense. But the main theme in both films is the same, and properly Heinleinian: The US is trying to conquer space in the name of world peace while a huge and well-oiled may-or-may-not-be-Communist spy machinery is trying to sabotage the mission. After Destination Moon Heinlein provided his novel Space Cadet as the basis for the kiddie series Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (1950-1955) and wrote three episodes of Out There in 1951. In fact, Project Moon Base was intended as an 11-part TV series called Ring Around the Moon. The story of the film was originally written as a 30-minute pilot. But producer Jack Seaman wasn’t able to get the project off the ground, and instead rewrote Heinlein’s script to make it a 60+ minute movie, not necessarily made on a much bigger budget than the TV series. Understandably, Heinlein was pissed, to put it mildly, and disowned the film. But, Bill Warren points out in his book Keep Watching the Skies!, Heinlein was still kind enough to sign the film’s posters when asked to do so by fans.

Donna Martell and Ross Ford.

Donna Martell and Ross Ford.

In the rest of Robert Heinlein’s life not a single film or TV episode was made from his books, at least credited as such. Roger Corman made the film The Brain Eaters in 1958, which was an uncredited adaptation of his novel The Puppet Masters, and Heinlein sued the 26 000 dollar film for 1,2 million dollars, but settled out of court. Hard as it may be to believe, the first sanctioned film adaptation of a Heinlein novel came as late as 1988, the year of Heinlein’s death, with a Japanese straight-to-video release of the film Uchû no senshi, from the novel Starship Troopers. The first proper cinematic film made from a book of his was The Puppet Masters (1994), starring Donald Sutherland, and of course in 1997 came the film that he’s remembered for, Starship Troopers. In fact, surprisingly few films were made in the fifties that were written by a practising sci-fi author. This might seem weird as this was the Golden Age of science fiction, and Hollywood churned out cheap sci-fi films by the hundreds. One might think that an author like Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein would have at least fifty movies to their name by now, but that’s not the case. When Warren asks screenwriter Terry Rossio about why so few sci-fi novels have been turned into film, he gets the answer that, simply, ”kids that grow up reading science fiction don’t become studio executives. Some of them have become directors, producers, writers, actors, every other movie profession – but not studio executives.”

Larry Johns and Donna Martell.

Larry Johns and Donna Martell.

If you skipped the spoiler above you don’t get the whole picture, but let’s just say that the film ended on a very conservative note regarding gender roles. Some viewers have posited that all the stuffy sexism came from Seaman’s pen, and it is possible that he may have heightened it, and some of it comes from the direction and the way Martell plays Briteis. But Heinlein was famously schizophrenic when it came to gender roles, sexuality and feminism, and there’s little doubt that the core of the script is very Heinleinian. The author was, in his own way, one of the first, if not the first, male feminist juvenile writer. Starting as early as 1939, he placed women in positions of power and wrote female characters that could be just as smart, tough and capable, sometimes more so, than their male counterparts. But on the other hand, when the chips were down, most of them would drop everything else at the merest hint that there was a chance to get pregnant and start a cozy middle-class family life. And just as Briteis in the latter part of the movie, his female characters tended to be highly deferential to their male counterparts, and notions that the men would like to give the women ”a good spanking” is very much in line with his writing. In many of his latter novels there’s a discomforting feeling that all of his women happily get in the sack anywhere and with anyone without much afterthought. This partly stems from his life-long advocacy for free sex, but his female portaits in the sixties and seventies often come across more like the porn movie sex fantasies of an ageing author.

Robert Karnes, Herb Jacobs and their futuristic not-necessarily-communist radio.

Robert Karnes, Herb Jacobs and their futuristic not-necessarily-communist radio.

However, the film isn’t all about gender roles, even if that part seems to have gotten exaggerated during production. It’s also about espionage and the first moon landing and the first space station. In fact, a good deal of the first half of the film is taken up by the perhaps-Communists and their plot to replace Dr. Wernher, and you suppose that this will be the clinch of the film. However, two thirds through the movie the espionage thing just sort of goes away, and then suddenly it’s Robinson Crusoe on the moon. Herb Jacobs as the leader of the not-stated-by-neither-disclaimed-Communists is a bit stiff, fairly convincing. Jacobs didn’t have much of a career: he appeared in 7 Z-grade films, of which Project Moon Base is the best known. Larry Johns as Dr. Wernher and ”Dr. Wernher” is a gangly man in in his late fifties, although he looks to be in his sixties. He is one of the more pleasant Communists spies I have seen on film, and reminds me of someone’s jovial grandfather. He had 25 appearances in film and TV, nothing much to phone home about.

A shot from Cat-Women of the moon: same rocket.

A shot from Cat-Women of the moon: same rocket.

In his story for Ring Around the Moon, Heinlein took a different scientific approach than he did in Destination Moon about moon landings. A lot of people at the time thought that the first outer space mission would not directly land on the moon, but first orbits were going to be attempted, and history proved them right. In this case the first orbit became a landing, but that was by accident. Another thought was that attempting a straight flight-and-landing from the Earth would be too difficult, because a rocket built for taking off from the Earth would have to be very different from one that could land on the moon. Thus the idea was that a lunar lander would probably have to be brought up either in pieces or whole from the Earth to a space station, and the astronauts would change vehicles at the station.

As often in his writing, Heinlein was adamant at getting the science right. And he is eerily prophetic in many regards. He pinpoints the first lunar landing to 1970, just one year off the mark. He predicted that in the seventies we would have space stations; that did happen, but they appeared a bit later in the seventies, and it was the positively-actual-Communists that got that one up there first.

The space station, designed by Jacque Fresco.

The space station, designed by Jacque Fresco.

However, he (or the filmmakers) got some things wrong. In Destination Moon, the filmmakers used a sleek one-stage rocket, when scientists at the time were fairly unanimous in the notion that it would probably take a three-stage rocket to get to the moon and back. Project Moon Base partly get this right. They use a one-stage rocket to get to the moon base and a separate lunar module to get to a from the moon. The idea was sort of right, but in real life, of corse, the lunar module was built in to the rocket. In films from the fifties space stations were often portrayed as rotating to create Earth-like gravity, in most cases to dispense with expensive weightlessness effects. In Project Moon Base the station is a stationary disc, and the weightlessness is dispensed with, as in Destination Moon, with magnetic boots. Another trope in old sci-fi films is that the space station interiors would be designed much like ordinary office buildings, where you would even have a commanding officer sitting at a desk. Anyone who has seen pictures from actual space stations will know this is a far cry from reality.

One fun aspect of Project Moon Base is the way people walk upside down. As soon as Briteis and Moore enter the station they meet another person walking past them in the different direction – on the ceiling, and there’s a nice, fun touch as the walls have large stencilled signs asking people to ”please do not walk on the walls”, which must have been a Heinlein idea.

Please do not.

Please do not.

Another thing Heinlein got wrong was the importance of weight. This notion leads to one of the most hilarious aspects of the film – the astronaut’s suits, which are short shorts and tight T-shirts. And for some reason the astronauts are required to wear absolutely ridiculous skull caps. Although weight is an important factor in space flight, the idea that the clothes the astronauts wear would have any bearing on the success of a flight made with a big rocket filled with jet fuel is preposterous. The Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo spacecraft weighed about 3 000 tons fully fuelled. I think it could take the extra load of a pair of proper pants. The notion becomes even sillier when the filmmakers (as so often for cinematic reasons) portray the interior of the rocket as impossibly large.

How is it hanging? Classic split-screen shot.

How is it hanging? Classic split-screen shot.

But the skimpy clothing added the pleasure of seeing Donna Martell’s lovely curves, enhanced by a pointed bullet bra, although the skull cap does her no favours. In an interview with my favourite film historian Tom Weaver, Martell recalled that she had hair down to her waist at the time, and had a hard time getting it all in under the silly hat. In Weaver’s book Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks she also has a laugh about the fact that Ross Ford would tease her because he could see her blue underwear beneath the hot pants: ”But he was right! I did have blue underwear under those blue denims [shorts]!” and she continues: ”Oh dear. I have always been endowed – thank the Lord – and, oh, those T-shirts were so tight!”

The lunar pod.

The lunar pod.

The miniatures of the rockets and the space station look very toy-like, but certainly quite decent considering they were developed for a TV show, In fact, everything done with spaceships in sci-fi films up to this point in movie history had looked toy-like, even the best efforts by George Pal in films like When Worlds Collide (1951, review) and The War of the Worlds (1953, review) – although Pal’s rockets looked like really expensive toys. The spaceships still have that sleek Destination Moon-inspired shape that all spaceships of the fifties had, even if those ridiculous fins we see in some films have been abandoned. The space station looks like one of those robot vacuum cleaners that get stuck on thresholds. The lunar module actually doesn’t look too different from the ones used in actual moon missions. Kudos for this should be given to production designer Jerome Pycha Jr. and miniature builders Jacque Fresco and Howard Weeks, as well as Heinlein.

Jacque Fresco in 1949.

Jacque Fresco in 1949.

Pycha was a B movie production designer who mostly worked on westerns in the forties and fifties, but also lent a hand to Ivan Tors’ Riders to the Stars (1954, review). Fresco was much more than a miniature builder, and is in fact a renowned and controversial futurist and social engineer, whose writings and designs have touched on everything from economics to politics, urban planning, aeronautics, architecture and science fiction. A colourful man, Fresco has also been professionally active in all these fields, and has spent a lifetime promoting his vision of an ecologically sustainable ”resource-based” society, which he tried to implement in his eco-village The Venus Project in the nineties. He also opened a psychological clinic which was shut down by the authorities when they found he had no training in the field, joined the Ku Klux Clan to change their view on race and got thrown out of a Marxist youth league for arguing against Marx. In the seventies he co-wrote a speculative book on a cybernetic future where all work has been eradicated and hedonism is the main philosophy with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey. Despite his numerous grand designs and ideas, very little of his work has ever been realised, as many of them have been deemed impractical. He has also received critisism for what some see as fascistoid tendencies in his vision of a future society. His ideas and designs have lately gained some following through the documentaries Future by Design (2006) and Zeitgeist: Addendum (2008). Project Moon Base was the only fictional film he worked on. Especially the disc-shaped space station has the hallmarks of a Fresco design. Fresco is still alive at an impressive 99 years old (February 2016), still promoting his vision of the future. Howard Weeks was a more traditional model builder, who’s work can be seen in The Man from Planet X (1951, review) and The Angry Red Planet (1959).

I am just asking: What is the Salvation Army doing on a space station?

I am just asking: What is the Salvation Army doing on a space station?

The special effects are not spectacular, but work well for a film of this calibre. We get shots of spaceships and modules docking at and taking off from the space stations, done practically and hiding whatever wires or sticks were used well. The effects were also created by Fresco. The scenes of people inside the space station walking on walls and ceilings were created with a fairly simple split-screen technique by Jack R. Glass, whose work we’ve seen in The Man from Planet X, and who did the photographic effects for the TV series Adventures of Superman (1952-1958). The scene of Briteis and Moore sitting in chairs on the wall speaking to the space station officials in a tiny office looks a bit forced, as the people involved crane their necks furiously to speak to each other, and you get the feeling that in reality, the room would have been better planned. But it’s a fun little effect.

The super high-tech telephone of the future, presented by Larry Johns.

The super high-tech telephone of the future, presented by Larry Johns.

A fun aspect of these kinds of movies is always watching how filmmakers envision the future. Of course the technology is always front and center in sci-fi. However, apart from the spacecrafts, there is not much ”new” technology on display in the film. One thing the film does predict correctly is the use of cordless phones. This wasn’t a huge leap of imagination, as radio phones had been in use for years, and the theory of mobile phones was already being developed. The first handheld mobile phone was unveiled in 1973, so the timeline is not that far off. But the phones in the film still look like ordinary desk phones of the fifties, only with the cords replaced by hilarious antennae. In a way, they have more in common with the so-called car phones first developed by Nokia in the early eighties. There’s also the fact that people still use big, clunky desk-radios for communication – with silly Flash Gordon-styled antennae placed on top of them to make them look futuristic.

The man of the future: Herb Jacobs and his baggy suit.

The man of the future: Herb Jacobs and his baggy suit.

One interesting aspect of futuristic films is that they often highlight the times they were made in more than predict the future, in a stylistic sense. For example, anyone watching 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in 2001 had the distinct feeling of watching a perfect concentrate of 1968 in clothing, design and hairstyle. In the same way The Fifth Element (1997) today feels like an elongated techno music video from the nineties. Even a very timeless movie like Alien (1979) is clearly given away by the hairstyles of some of the characters, as well as the tight-fitting, high-waisted coveralls used in the movie, and the fact that people smoke everywhere.

Oftentimes, though, especially in B movies like Project Moon Base, there is a strange clash of styles. Most people in the movie wear the exact same kinds of clothes popular in the early fifties, the only distinction being the (as mentioned above) ridiculous space outfits. But even the T-shirts and even skull caps have a very distinctive fifties look to them.

A young Richard Talmadge.

A young Richard Talmadge.

Apart from the special effects, the direction is rather mundane. The film was directed by Richard Talmadge, who is quite an interesting character. Talmadge started out as a stuntman and bit-part actor in the early days of Hollywood, and progressed to stunt coordinator in the mid-twenties, when he also began to star in a number of Z-grade films, mostly westerns and action films. In the thirties directors started utilising his skill in putting together elaborate stunt sequences by hiring him as second unit or associate director for action sequences in their movies. In this capacity he worked on films like The 300 Spartans (1962), How the West was Won (1962), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), What’s New Pussycat (1965), Casino Royale (1967), and many others.

As an actor Talmadge was never more than a third-grade leading man in Hollywood, but was one of the biggest American films stars in the Soviet Union in the twenties. Especially in the early ”liberal” years of the Soviet Union, American films could be frequently seen in cinemas in Russia, but they were carefully chosen so that they wouldn’t have any ideological content. Harmless action thrillers with stars like Talmadge were therefore often shown, and Talmadge quickly became a favourite of the communist action lovers.

Soviet film poster with Richard Talmadge.

Soviet film poster with Richard Talmadge.

Tom Lundquist in his book Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde explains: ”Films made by independent American producers like Richard Talmadge, Charles Ray and Monty Banks, which played only in marginal theatres in the United States [due to the tight control of major theatres chains by the large producers], enjoyed disproportionate success in the Soviet Union, especially since they were also quite shallow standard fare guaranteed to have no political message. As a result, some films that were barely noticed in their home country occasioned the creation of superior Russian posters, often at odds with their cinematic value.” Talmadge directed five other films in the forties and fifties, of which Project Moon Base is without contest the best known. Actress Donna Martell described him as a ”little man, full of fire”.

Donna Martell.

Donna Martell.

The acting in the film overall is well in line with the sort of TV production it was supposed to be in the the beginning. Donna Martell was a popular B movie star, who played leads in a number of B westerns and crime dramas, and according to herself, a lot of studios were out to sign her when she first appeared in Hollywood in the late forties. In Bill Warren’s book Keep Watching the Skies she recalls that she chose Universal because of its acting school. Career-wise this wasn’t the best idea, since Universal wouldn’t loan her to other studios, which means a lot of good roles passed her by. In the early fifties she transitioned into TV, where she continued to work up until the early sixties, when she retired, according to her interview with Bill Warren, because of pressure from her then-husband (whom she later divorced: ”he just couldn’t handle me – bless his heart.”).

In Paul Martell’s and Charles P. Mitchell’s book Screen Sirens Scream! Martell remembers she had a lot of fun doing the movie, even though she often had to learn a lot of re-writes the morning before shooting a particular scene. She said the decision to turn the series into a film came in the middle of shooting. She says Heinlein was very much into the TV series, before it got turned into a film, and despite the hokey story, she thought the movie got a lot of things technically right about space travel. In the 21st century, Martell says, she has discovered what she calls the ”collectors’ shows”, or fan events and conferences, which she enjoys profoundly. ”It’s a boost, it’s a shot in the arm. It’s like giving back, because you’re out there and you’re talking with the people and you’re on the panels /…/ The interaction, they just love it. And guess what? So do I!”

Hayden Rorke getting jolly on I Dream of Jeannie.

Hayden Rorke getting jolly on I Dream of Jeannie.

Ross Ford as Major Moore is a rather bland actor giving a rather bland performance in the film that is the best remembered in his rather bland career. Hayden Rorke as General Pappy is probably the actor best known to a broad audience, thanks to his recurring role as the NASA doctor Bellows in the TV sitcom I Dream of Jeannie (1967-1970). He also had a small role in When Worlds Collide.

Album cover for the soundtrack.

Album cover for the soundtrack.

A mention should go to noted composer Herschel Burke Gilbert, whose score really is one of the few things on the movie that is actually up to feature film standards, even above average. The atmospheric orchestral score features electrical strings, harp and theremin, the latter played by Hollywood’s number one (only?) theremin player of the fifties, Samuel Hoffman, who has appeared on the score of every single film with a theremin I have reviewed thus far. Gilbert doesn’t over-emphasise the strangeness of space or the theremin, as many composers did, but creates an eerie feeling when required, but also handles the rest of the more traditional orchestral score perfectly. Gilbert was a prominent industry figure, active within the Hollywood composer’s union and with music preservation, and really made his name doing scores for TV series, such as Rifleman and Burke’s Law. Cinematographer William C. Thompson is best known for shooting most of Ed Wood’s most famous films, including Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

Two on the moon.

Two on the moon.

The movie was filmed in ten days just before Cat-Women of the Moon, which then took over some of the props and sets of this film. The rocket cockpit and the bunks of the spaceship appear in that film, and so does the two spacesuits used for Project Moon Base, and I wonder if some of the moon sets weren’t also reused in Cat-Women. The spacesuits were of the same kind that were used in Destination Moon and Flight to Mars (1951, review). Either they were leftover from the publicity campaign from the first film, or then they were ordered from a company called Western Costumes, that was allegedly manufacturing these same kind of suits to the same design as Destination Moon used.

Scott Weinberg of DVD Talk sums up the film: ”Much of the 63-minute flick consists of silly sets, insipid dialogue, casual sexism, and (especially towards the end) outright lunacy. And those outfits! Whose idea was it to give out Peter Pan hats and short-shorts to Earth’s first guy/girl astro-squad? Still: simply and consistently silly, but not all that weird.”

Janne Wass

Project Moon Base (1953). Directed by Richard Talmadge. Written by Robert A. Heinlein and Jack Seaman. Starring: Donna Martell, Ross Ford, Hayden Rorke, Larry Johns, Herb Jacobs, Barbara Morrison, Ernestine Barrier, James Craven, John Hedloe, Peter Adams, Robert Karnes, John Straub, Charles Keane, John Tomecko, Robert Paltz. Music: Herschel Burke Gilbert. Cinematography: William C. Thompson. Editing: Roland Gross. Art direction: Jerome Pycha Jr. Makeup artist: Harry Thomas. Sound: Joel Moss, William Randall. Special effects: Jacque Fresco. Visual effects: Jacque Fresco, Jack R. Glass, Howard Weeks. Wardrobe: Jack E. Miller. Produced by Jack Seaman and for Galaxy Pictures.

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